How well scientists understand how to figure out how the brain works…

May 29th, 2016

koerdingAn essay (in The Elusive Self blog) about a demonstration of how little anyone really understands how the brain works:

False functional inference: what does it mean to understand the brain?

A few days ago Eric Jonas and Konrad Kording [pictured here] (J&K) posted a thought-provoking paper on bioRxiv entitled “Could a neuroscientist understand a microprocessor?” It’s been circling round my head for most of the weekend, and prompted some soul searching about what we’re trying to achieve in cognitive neuroscience.

The paper reports on a mischievous set of experiments in which J&K took a simulation of the MOS 6502 microchip (which ran the Apple I computer, and which has been the subject of some fascinating digital archaeology by the team), and then analysed the link between it’s function and behaviour much as we might do for the brain in cognitive and systems neuroscience. The chip’s “behaviour” was its ability to boot and run three different sets of instructions for different games: Donkey Kong, Space Invaders and Pitfall (as a side note, exploring this sent me down the rabbit hole of internet emulations including this one of Prince of Persia which occupied many hours of my childhood). While their findings will not necessarily be surprising for a chip designer, they are humbling for a neuroscientist.

3sect_subBy treating the chip like a mini-brain, albeit one in which the ground truth was fully known, J&K could apply some canonical analysis techniques and see what they revealed. The bottom line is that for most of these analyses, they were either downright misleading or ended up producing trivial results….

(Thanks to Chris Frith for bringing this to our attention.)

BONUS: A recent essay by Robert Epstein, in Aeon: “The empty brain — Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer

A rather colorful insectivorist

May 29th, 2016

Ryan P. Smith, writing in Smithsonian magazine, tells of the book that tells of “The Bizarre Tale of the Tunnels, Trysts and Taxa of a Smithsonian Entomologist“:

A new book details the sensational exploits of Harrison G. Dyar, Jr., a scientist who had two wives and liked to dig tunnels

Dyar instigated fiery feuds with his fellow entomologists. He was concurrently married to two different women. And he dug elaborate, electric-lit tunnels beneath two of his D.C. residences, disposing of the dirt in a vacant lot, or else passing it off as furnace dust or fertilizer.

Long after his death, there were whispers that the tunnels had enabled him to shuttle between his lovers—an urban legend that, while apocryphal, speaks to the mystery in which Dyar seems perennially shrouded…


BONUS: One of our favorites of Dyar’s many scholarly publications: “Note on the secondary abdominal legs in the Megalopygidae,” Harrison G. Dyar,  Journal of the New York Entomological Society, vol. 7, no. 2 (1899): 69-70.


Pedestrian Potential-Collision Standoffs, and Symmetry Breaking

May 28th, 2016

We’ve all experienced this phenomenon: you and someone else are walking towards each other in opposite directions, and you don’t want to collide. Do you shift to the left or to the right? And how should you shift to avoid a standoff? In a new paper on the arXiv, physicists Nickolas Morton and Shaun Hendy of the Department of Physics at University of Auckland have examined this problem through the lens of statistical mechanics. Here is an excerpt from their abstract:

If both make the same choice then passing can be completed with ease, while if they make opposite choices an embarrassing stand- off or collision can occur. Pedestrians who encounter each other frequently can establish “social norms” that bias this decision. In this study we investigate the effect of binary decision-making by pedestrians when passing on the dynamics of pedestrian flows in order to study the emergence of a social norm in crowds with a mixture of individual biases. (…) We construct a phase diagram that shows that a social norm can still emerge provided pedestrians are sufficiently attentive to the choices of others in the crowd. We show that this collective behaviour has the potential to greatly influence the dynamics of pedestrians, including the breaking of symmetry by the formation of lanes.




Dead Duck Day, June 5th, honoring homosexual necrophilia in the mallard

May 28th, 2016

DeadDuckDay-logoSunday, June 5th, 2016 is the 21st edition of Dead Duck Day, arriving precisely one year after last year’s Dead Duck Day. At exactly 17:55 h [Rotterdam time] we will honor the mallard duck that became known to science as the first (documented) ‘victim’ of homosexual necrophilia in that species, and earned its discoverer the 2003 Ig Nobel Biology Prize.

Dead Duck Day also commemorates the billions of other birds that die from colliding with glass buildings, and challenges people to find solutions to this global problem.

Please join the free, short open-air ceremony next to the new wing of the Natural History Museum Rotterdam (the Netherlands), right below the new Dead Duck Memorial Plaque— the very spot where that duck (now museum specimen NMR 9989-00232) met his dramatic end.

Sarah Forbes

Sarah Forbes

This is what will happen:

  • The traditional Ten Seconds of Silence.
  • Review of this year’s necrophilia news: two new clear cases in birds became known to science, and the first case in a Dutch mammal (!) will be revealed.
  • The reading of the special ‘Dead Duck Day Message’. This years message is send in by Sarah Forbes, former curator of the Museum of Sex (MoS) in New York and author of the book ‘Sex in the Museum’.
  • The announcement of the second performance of ‘The Homosexual Necrophiliac Duck Opera’ in London, on sacred grounds, June 24th, 2016.
  • The first-ever Dead Duck Day Fashion Show. The first batch of t-shirts, designed by Mark Prinsen, will be for sale.
  • A six-course duck dinner, after the ceremony.

The traditional six-course (dead) duck dinner at the famous Tai Wu Restaurant is also open to the public (at your own expense).  Reserve you seat by e-mailing to: info [at]


BONUS: More on the history of Dead Duck Day on the official Dead Duck Day website:

BONUS: Here is Kees Moeliker’s TED Talk about the dead duck:

Car Horn Honking Studies (part 1)

May 27th, 2016

Anyone who has driven a vehicle in various different countries might have observed that the national rate of ‘horn honking’ varies considerably – but why? A widely-cited study by Douglas T. Kenrick and Steven W. MacFarlane (published in 1986) investigated whether one simple variable – temperature – might be having an effect.


The team organised that a “female confederate” driving a Datsun 200SX would repeatedly perform a potentially irritating manoeuvre at a set of traffic lights in Pheonix Arizona.

“When the light turned red, she moved her car to the head of the intersection and waited for a subject to pull in behind her. The confederate then waited for the light to turn green and remained stationary throughout the 12-second course of the light.

The confederate was instructed to keep still, with her eyes forward, car in neutral, foot off the brake, and her hands on steering wheel. Once the green light had changed, the confederate made a legal* right turn on the red light.”

An observer recorded how long the cars which were behind her spent honking their horns. 75 such tests were conducted between April and August, when the “Temperature Humidity Discomfort Index” varied from 86º to 116º (Fahrenheit).

“Results indicated a direct linear increase in horn honking with increasing temperature. Stronger results were obtained by examining only those subjects who had their windows rolled down (and presumably did not have air conditioners operating).”

See: ‘Ambient Temperature and Horn Honking : A Field Study of the Heat/Aggression Relationship’ in: Environment and Behavior, March 1986 vol. 18 no. 2 179-191.

* Question [optional]: Under what circumstances is it possible to make “a legal right turn” on a red light?

Coming soon: Horn Honking part 2